In Cork Airport’s duty free there is a large screen showing adverts for Midleton distillery’s single pot still collection. The smooth-talking gent hosting the videos lavishes the Cork whiskeys with praise, and assures us that Midleton’s single pot still collection is the ultimate expression of the art.
In the decade since those videos were created, their host Peter Mulryan has had something of a change of heart. The author, producer, and presenter may have been the face of Midleton’s single pot still whiskey in 2012, but in the years since he has become one of the most vocal critics of what he sees as Irish Distillers Limited’s reformation of the definition of single pot still. He could have spent his time criticising from the sidelines, using the skills he honed in his decades working in the media to gradually force change. But instead of words, he chose action (and also words, but mainly action).
Mulryan put his money – and the money of his investors – where his mouth was and chased his dream of being a distiller. He chucked in his job with Ireland’s national broadcaster and opened a distillery – first in a lock-up in a rural industrial estate in west Waterford, then expanding to a converted hardware store in the sleepy village of Ballyduff a few miles away. It turned out that Mulryan and his team – several of whom worked on those single pot still videos with him – were quite good at distilling, as the Blackwater Distillery spirits have won multiple awards. The team are also quite good at business, as they landed massive supply contracts with supermarket giant Aldi. But Mulryan never softened his tone about the technical file, the State document which lays down the laws on Irish whiskey, and specifically, how to make single pot still (SPS) Irish whiskey.
Having written five books on Irish whiskey, Mulryan was well placed to point out what he saw as inaccuracies in the technical file, saying that he could find no historic mashbills which complied with the document’s requirement that the mash for SPS must contain a minimum of 30% malted barley and a minimum of 30% unmalted barley, with up to 5% of other cereals such as oats and rye added if required.
Writing on his distillery’s blog, Mulryan seethed about Midleton’s SPS whiskeys: “The official Redbreast website is even more confident: ‘this is the traditional way of making Irish whiskey since the 1800s.’ Except of course it’s all a load of horse manure. These whiskeys are not a reflection of anything, except perhaps corporate sleight of hand and a lack of oversight. If truth be told, the ‘tradition’ being celebrated here goes all the way back not to the nineteenth century but to October 2014.”
In numerous posts he used the phrase stolen heritage, gushed about traditional single pot still whiskey and its wild and varied mashbills, and worked with whiskey historians Fionnán O’Connor, Charlie Roche, and Will Murphy in digging up as many as he could. Mulryan then set about proving that SPS – the old, bold SPS as opposed to what he framed as the more modern, corporate IDL version (which he gives fair credit to as an excellent whiskey, it should be noted) – was a viable commercial product rather than a dusty relic reflective of palates now long dead. In a post on New Year’s Day 2020 he explained how between February and September 2019 they distilled more than 100 different SPS mashbills, the majority traced back to a specific distillery, date, or both, from 1824 to 1955. The recipes came from ‘just after the 1823 Excise Act (the foundation of the modern industry)’, right through the Victorian Irish whiskey boom.
“We’ve distilled outliers featuring 40% wheat, and 38% oat, but mostly that range of ‘other grains’ settled comfortably in the 20% – 25% band, with oat being predominant. All mash bills contained barley and malt, and all featured either oats, wheat and rye. Some have all five elements. However, not one of these real single pot still mashbills is compliant with the current Technical File. That’s not how we planned it, it’s just one of those awkward facts,” he wrote.
If this seems like a lot of work, you might well be right, as Mulryan added: “We could have spent 2019 churning out single malt, or compliant SPS, but we chose not to. As a result we only ran at close to 50% capacity. It was an expensive exercise, but we can now safely say there isn’t another distillery in the country/world that has dug into the SPS category as deeply as we have.”
Alongside the SPS missives were posts about their use of heritage grains, oats and green malt, along with pieces slamming a lack of transparency in Irish whiskey and an overabundance of brands built on sourced liquid – “We have the talent, but are downing in a sea of tribute acts” he wrote. Mulryan then went on to release a sourced whiskey named Velvet Cap (preceded by The Retronaut, a sourced, one-off 117-bottle release), along with procuring sourced whiskey stock for Aldi which was released under their Púca range. Ironically, for all Mulryan’s enthusiasm for clarity around sourced whiskey, this press release from Aldi doesn’t exactly make it crystal clear that Blackwater did not make the whiskey (the Blackwater online store, however, is clear on Velvet Cap being sourced).
But Blackwater’s main business was always making, not sourcing. During the pandemic they started a taster’s club where they experimented with spirits and flavour, sending out packs to fans with new spirits in each. They continued to win awards, and the technical file – once seen as the stone tablets of Irish whiskey – is about to be reopened for edits and adjustments, a move welcomed by Mulryan.
Much like their county neighbours Waterford Distillery, Blackwater have used a lot of highfalutin words like terroir, provenance, and grand cru (even their slogans are similar – Waterford’s motto is ‘where barley is king’ while Blackwater have ‘let the grain reign’). They both like a bit of sabre-rattling at ‘the big guys’ (neither are exactly little guys), and both have a lot of raw attitude. Mulryan’s jousting in the media even went so far as to claim that, unlike many others, he wasn’t in the whiskey business to make loads of money, something which may come as a shock to his investors.
All of this brings us to Blackwater’s first whisky (sic, natch), which comes to us burdened with great promise and even greater expectations. With typical bombast, the new releases come with a huge amount of detail on the liquid, but also have a hardback pamphlet titled A Manifesto For Irish Pot Still Whisky. Per the press release:
The Manifesto release is limited to just 1,000 numbered boxes, each containing 4 x 200ml single cask Irish whiskies. (Priced €250 & Delivery). Inspired by mash bills (recipes) from 1838, 1893, 1908 and 1915, this is a unique opportunity to taste the whiskies enjoyed by previous generations. Each one is different, representing a distinct time and a place. The whiskies in this Manifesto release cannot be labelled as pot still Irish whisky, nor can there be any allusion to it on the label; even though historically that’s exactly what these four whiskies were.
The four samples – and my notes on them – are:
- Dirtgrain Irish Whisky, Mash Bill #38 – 40% Laureate Barley, 40% Costello Wheat, 20% Gangway + Laureate. Aged in Apple Brandy Cask. 47.1% ABV – this one packs a punch. I drank these out of sequence – ie, I went by number rather than the layout here – and this one hit hard, big wallop of flavour, presumably from the cask. Raises the issues about using different casks in these samples – what is creating the different profiles here, the grain or the wood? Maybe the mashbills would shine most at new make stage?
- Dirtgrain Irish Whisky, Mash Bill #93 – 46% Laureate Barley, 35% Gangway + Laureate, 15% Husky Oat, 4% Peated Laurate Malt. Aged in Sherry Cask. 43.1% ABV – deepest colour of the four, sherry cask, mashbill from 1893, and a bit o’ peat, always an extra string to the bow of a young whisky. Mulryan makes the case that age does not always equate with quality, but I think a lot of people selling young whisky would make similar claims. I do think there is a cut off point beyond which whisky, like the rest of us, becomes a little less vibrant, but I think the youngest age for decent whiskies that I have had is about six years old.
- Dirtgrain Irish Whisky, Mash Bill #08 – 50% Gangway + Laureate Malt, 35% Laureate Barley, 15% Husky Oat. Aged in Bourbon Cask. 45.3% ABV – a light gold colour, the palest of the lot, it slithers out of the test tube like syrup. A startling viscosity. Citrus, candied orange peel, Juicy Fruits. Reminds me of a young Aultmore I have, despite the mashbill. Good youth, no rawness – but not a long finish.
- Dirtgrain Irish Whisky, Mash Bill #15 – 40% Laureate Barley, 30% Gangway + Laureate, 15% Husky Oat, 12% Costello Wheat, 3% Performer Rye. Aged in Rye Cask. 44.2% ABV – nose hard to dig out, palate also taking a while to present. Official notes say orange blossom and dark chocolate; for me there is more that malty flavour from dog biscuits – don’t pretend you’ve never eaten one. Rye cask here so a pop of spice. Pleasant if a little nondescript.
So what to make of this – I like the moxy. I like the manifesto and I’ve put it to the testo, and while the whisky is young, all hold promise. But that isn’t the same as saying that you should run out and buy this. But I’m not a whiskey nerd – I like the stuff, and I love tasting these whiskies, but this is not aimed at fairweather friends of Irish whiskey like me. The full Dirtgrain package is €250, featuring four 20cl bottles of the samples above, along with Mulryan’s mashbill Necromicon, and can be purchased now. There will be another batch next year, and the year after, and after that Blackwater will transition to more traditional releases. A taste of the past, that looks to the future.